If in yesterday’s chapter, we saw an extreme example of assuming responsibility, the aim of today’s chapter seems to be to diffuse responsibility as much as possible. The mystery of who exactly is responsible for the sale of Yosef does not begin with the inner contradictions found at the end of the chapter. The storyline as a whole works to complicate the moral question of responsibility. Who shall we blame? Yaakov, who causes the brothers’ hatred by his favoritism for Yosef, rebukes Yosef for his dreams, and then sends him off alone to encounter them? Yosef, who doesn’t know how to take the hint when his brothers stop talking to him, and continues to share his provocative dreams with them? The anonymous brothers who suggest killing him, Reuven who suggests throwing him into the pit, Yehuda who suggests selling him, or any one of the multiple groups of merchants named as involved in his sale? Or shall we pin the blame on the mysterious man who plays a crucial role in bringing Yosef to his brothers’ hands?
Perhaps the text is making the same point that Yosef will make to his brothers at the end of the story. No one actor can be held responsible for what happened. Every decision, every action, every player, was guided by a Divine hand.
But while this can be an inspiring perspective to adopt, it’s also deeply problematic for what it says about human agency and responsibility. The tribes kidnapped and sold their brother- will they be applauded for contributing to the Divine plan? Ultimately, Jewish tradition is relentless in its quest for responsibility, and the powerful liturgical recitation of Eleh Ezkerah has a roman emperor calling the Jewish leaders of his generation to task for the brothers’ sin, and the Divine decree concurring.
This is (hopefully) a daily series of short reflections in English on the daily chapter of Tanach in the (wonderful, wonderful) 929 Project. The initiative, and the ideas and opinions expressed here, are my own. If you haven’t heard of 929, you can learn more at 929.org.il